The Secret Bookshelf

Before the world turned into a (virtual) “Zombie Apocalypse,” there was a bookshelf. Used and deeply discounted copies of classics like Jane Eyre, Great Expectations, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and I know Why the Caged Bird Sings competed for literary affection.

The old shelf could be found at New York’s Strand Bookshop. With a sea of beautifully curated book tables, the shelf suffered from anonymity. However, it meant, I could stock up on the classics, without competition.

While braving the bookshop’s tropical heat, in winter, I made a discovery. It was a $3.00 copy of 1984. Elated, I bought the copy. Immediately, I re-read, the George Orwell classic.

Everyday after work, I’d head to Café Grumpy at Grand Central Station, and immersed myself in Orwell’s disturbing Dystopia fantasy. It was a most splendid way to avoid rush hour. I re-read it in three days.

My used copy of “1984” joined other novels for the move to California. The box arrived at my father’s house. He took pictures of the inventory, since I was still wrapping up life in Manhattan. Scrolling through the pictures, 1984 had been missing from the pictures.

“Daddy, where’s my copy of 1984?” I asked.

“I don’t see it, “ he replied.

“Oh my God, please look for it,” I told him.

Nervous, I tried to figure out how my precious $3.00 copy went missing. A few minutes later, my father texted me.

“Is this the stupid book?” he wrote.

1984 had arrived safely, via camera phone evidence. It was now sandwiched between “Giovanni’s Room” and “A Confederacy of Dunces.” No Prozac for me, everything was swell. I looked forward to being reunited with my well-traveled books, in the Gayve (the gay man cave).

Five months later, Trump became President elect. (According to several news sources) 1984 hit the best sellers chart, again. The old cliché rang true, “life imitates art.” The Zombie Apocalypse dawned upon us. My very own Gayve has served as a refuge for art, literature, and cool records.

Harlem

Once my train approached the 125th Street station, my weekend began. Harlem’s vibrant sidewalks sounded like jazz and smelled like lavender. Babbalucci’s Italian restaurant was a Friday night staple.

I had my own special table. The waiters knew my name. A big stack of books and wine would dazzle me, as I awaited the best pizza pie in Manhattan. Halfway into my salami pizza, the phone rang. It was dad, calling from California.

“Anthony, there’s a huge blizzard about to hit the Northeast. Did you go to the grocery store?” he asked, with panic.

“Every snow storm is the blizzard of the century, out here. I’m fine. Nothing will shut down. I love you.” I replied, quite calmly.

After hanging up, I finished my pie. Glowing after a delicious meal, I surveyed the contents of my fridge. Shit, it was just bottled water and whisky. Imagining the mad rush at the local Associates Supermarket, I stayed home. Watching stupid cat videos on YouTube had more appeal.

As food coma and sleep attempted to set. Unfortunately, the screeching sounds of snow trucks kept me from a nighttime slumber. A few hours later, grey skies reflected against my modest studio apartment’s barren walls. Morning had arrived.

“Oh, geez, let’s see what this massive snowstorm looks like, such hype,” I said to myself.

Seventh Avenue disappeared with white powder. The sky mirrored a furious sand storm. My dad might have been right. It was definitely a blizzard. As a brave New Yorker, I put on a pea coat, and headed to Lenox Coffee.

Upon opening my door, the snow had accumulated to unprecedented levels. I walked to the corner deli. To my surprise, it was closed.

Shit, the deli never closes. Whisky for breakfast would be fun. However, solid food sounds even more appetizing. I tested my luck, and decided to proceed to Lenox Coffee.

The brownstone-lined block between Seventh to Lenox Avenue was quite long. Bravely, I made the trek. The snow filled pavement made it an obstacle course. My feet grew tired. Snow blinded my eyes. However, I didn’t want to detour from a beloved Saturday morning ritual.

The block couldn’t have been longer. Like a champion hiker, I survived. Lenox Avenue was a mess. It’s jazz and lavender filled pavement had hit the snooze button. Cars splashed my pea coat with ice particles.

A corner McDonald’s provided the only bit of yellow light. Tired from the blizzard, I took a bold step for foodies, everywhere.

“I’ll take a biscuit breakfast sandwich, hash browns, and black coffee, please.” I said to the McDonald’s cashier.

After receiving my order, I sat down and ate the (surprisingly) scrumptious breakfast. It might not have been Lenox Coffee, but it was quite satisfying. After energizing meal, I crossed the overly long block, again.

Hibernating became quite thrilling. News reports announced the blizzard would become New York City’s second worst in history. Outside my window, people had snow fights and pranced merrily with snowboards. With the excitement, cabin fever eventually set in.

The next morning, New York and I woke up to blue skies. Per usual routine, I buttoned up my pea coat and marched toward Lenox Coffee. The long brownstone block was shoveled and salted. Tenement lined Lenox Avenue dazzled with snow banks.

Without tripping, I finally made it to Lenox Coffee. Harlem was resurrected, and I had survived another New York blizzard (I’ve lived through two of the biggest blizzards, February 2010 & January 2016).

Strolling back to my apartment, I battled for sidewalk space. Later that morning, I texted dad, “that was fun.” Within a few months, I moved to Southern California. These days, I still daydream of blizzards, coffee shops, brownstones, jazz-filled Lenox Avenue, and a mighty pea coat.

Vodka and the Gayve

How do I not break my neck, climbing these stairs? I asked myself.

I had reached my glorious apartment, a bit tipsy. My poison of choice was the chocolate whipped vodka. It contained seltzer, chocolate cream flavored vodka, and a lime. It tasted of the classic concoction, egg cream, the boozy version, of course.

Rather than craving General Tso’s Chicken or tasty Latino diner fare, I hungered for something more enticing. Like any good drunkard, I sifted through my beloved bookshelf.

“Ulysses, I’ve never read, Ulysses. How can I be a future English teacher of America and not read this classic?” I asked myself.

Rather dizzily, I pulled out the bed from my sofa, for a reading session. Ulysses’ beautiful green cover was intoxicating. The literary journey began. Initially, James Joyce’s important classic had me surprisingly glued. The first few chapters went by relatively quickly.

Since New York’s temperatures had dropped below zero, I was trapped in my fifth-floor walk-up. I spent much needed time with James Joyce. After a three-day weekend, the inevitable happened.

“Ulysses you’re boring the shit out of me,” said, the future English teacher.

I placed the lengthy novel back in its rightful place, the closet. Boarding two trains, I arrived in Union Square and bolted to the Strand Bookshop. “Welcome, book lovers,” the entrance sign read.

The shop’s book display case greeted, my bookworm eyes. It has always been the most beautifully arranged book table, in literary history. Somewhere between “The Catcher & The Rye” and “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.” A yellow sign beckoned my attention.

“Read a challenging book,” the sign said.

Beneath it, were several stacked copies of Ulysses. I opened the book, and observed how far along I was.

“Still, I can’t fathom finishing this book,” I told myself.

As I boarded the subway back to Harlem, the words, “read a challenging book,” haunted me. Then I arrived in my humble studio apartment. Ulysses came out of the literary closet.

I was back to reading the behemoth of book. Some parts grew increasingly enjoyable, while others made me want booze. Every moment not spent at work, were spent with Ulysses.

During my lunch break, I read my final sentence. After re-reading that sentence over and over, I closed the book.

“Shit, I actually finished, Ulysses.” It wasn’t my favorite book, but it ended up being quite enjoyable, and rather sexually explicit towards the end. The bookworm literary decathlon had ended.

I read more and more challenging books from then on. Ulysses fulfilled my wordy appetite. In celebration of completing, Ulysses, I did have another of those chocolate whipped vodkas. James Joyce would’ve approved.

 

That Poet Dude

Dude, You’re reading “Infinite Jest.” Like, David Foster Wallace is a genius. I’ve gotten all the way to page 400, said, Skylar (that’s his alias).

“Yeah, I am plugging away. I am on page 200,” I said.

We smiled at each. It was thrilling to meet another bookworm, especially a cute one. His style did scream, “Pacific Northwest Reject.” With sandals, ragged jeans, and a hoodie, he stood as that rare creature unique to the gay (the muscle bound/fashion conscious) mainstream.

After an intellectually stimulating conversation, we parted ways. I tried my best to preserve remnants of cynicism. Naively, I kept thinking about my Skylar.

“Gee, I bet he has a huge, huge, huge book collection. We could swap books. We could read James Baldwin, Joan Didion and James Joyce under a grand Sycamore tree. Heck, we could even get into lengthy debates about Dystopia novels vs. the current political climate.

The following week, I arrived promptly at art class. Skylar strolled in a bit late. He traded the hoodie for a “Nirvana” band t-shirt. Rather than have a serious expression, I decided to make eye contact with him. He returned the eye contact, with a smile.

After an hour of studying Post-Impressionists, I needed to tinkle. Miraculously, Skylar appeared.

“Hey, dude, can I read you a poem I wrote? It’s about some dude who committed suicide, he said.

I shook my head. He read with emotion. The men’s room entrance became a little poet’s den. Rather than a tinkle, Skylar and strolled around the campus. Throughout the walk, I wanted to find out if he were gay. The sexuality question was never brought up.

The following week in class, I brainstormed ways to ask him out. Unlike the previous week, he seemed more rush.

“Hey, where are you parked?” I asked.

“Oh, I am walking home,” He said.

He then left the classroom. I went home, regretting not being more up-front.

Skylar grew more and more distant, each week. We said, hi, to each other. He didn’t make much conversation. A month after meeting, I hit a literary milestone. I conquered reading, “Infinite Jest,” with Its 1,000 + pages.

As for my love life, I predictably lost interest in Skylar. After ending the semester, I still wondered if he was gay. It would’ve been great to date a fellow bookworm. My (future) bookworm boyfriend has been probably hiding under a rock (or the Strand Bookstore’s rows of shelves).

Fortunately, I wouldn’t have to hear his depressing poetry. The art class didn’t bring romance. However, I did receive an “A” on my report card (from that class) & a G.P.A. boost.

The Geriatrics Crowd

In a pleasant ranch home in Los Angeles’ Mar Vista section, stereotypes had come to die. It was my family’s Fourth of July reunion. Nobody ate healthy salads, worried about dieting, or drank anything with Kale.

Instead, a chubby pig roasted over an open fire. Initially, we all noshed on Cuban appetizers (Croquettes and little sandwiches). It helped quench hunger for an hour. However, the seductive air of roast pork awoke taste buds.

In a corner table sat, the “Metamucil Mafia” (old people, not an actual mafia). Rather than gambling and trading dirty jokes, the “Metamucil Mafia” had eyeballs bulging in despair. Concerned, I sat at the geriatric’s table.

“Are you starving, Anthony,” asked Auntie Melba.

“My stomach is growling in pangs of hunger,” I replied.

“Nephew, I love how straightforward you are,” said, Auntie Melba.

The geriatrics table grew increasingly gloomy. Everyone just stared at each, depressed. Mr. Piggy over the fire just kept on cooking and cooking and cooking.

Hours dragged on. I went from calm to hangry (when hunger meets anger). I leaped from the table. The startled seniors stared on.

“Why don’t we smuggle in a Domino’s Pizza?” I asked.

Their eyes lit up.

“What happens if someone catches us, “ asked Aunt Amarilis.

“We’ll eat out in the driveway. I’ll order it. My treat, “ I said.

At first, everyone was skeptical. When hunger took over, they shook their heads in agreement.

I pulled out my phone and designed our pork friendly pie. Sausage, pepperoni, bacon, it was a clogged artery’s wet dream. The seniors looked joyful again.

By the time I was about to push “order,” something miraculous happened.

“The pig is ready,” shouted my cousin.

The seniors forgot about their arthritis and rushed to the front of the roast pork line. They avoided greens and just went for the meat and potatoes. After returning to our senior friendly round table, we feasted on the pork.

Everyone stared at each other. We could read our minds. The pork had the consistency of a rubber band. Although, we would usually complain, hunger made the rubber bands taste scrumptious. Eventually, everyone regretted not ordering a pie. It would’ve made the Metamucil Mafia a bit more “bad ass.”

1988

My first apartment in Manhattan smelled of nostalgia. The smell was similar to an old bookshop meets Katz’s deli. It did have an elevator, and was just blocks from the East Village.

When the elevator doors opened, fluorescent hallway lights and green apartment doors welcomed me to the cocoon. A special box had arrived at my door, on a freezing March evening. It was a care package from my father in California. The box weighed thirty pounds.

I dragged it into my bedroom, and opened it. “Wow, my Mickey Mouse comforter was stuffed inside.” Excitedly, I hugged the worn out comforter.

Back in 1988, it was my childhood, “blanky.” My parents had bought me a whole Mickey Mouse bed set. While all the bedding had been tossed, the comforter remained mostly intact.

The Mickey Mouse comforter provided a sense of warmth. During cold winter nights, I cuddled up to it. It was a part of my youth, which provided much need nostalgia, in the midst of neurosis.

After spending my final three years in Harlem (my favorite neighborhood), I decided to switch careers and coasts. My studio apartment became a maze of boxes. Most of my belongings made it safely to California.

However, the Mickey Mouse comforter remained (I needed some bedding during my last few weeks). Upon my last night, I decided not to stuff the comforter into my suitcase. Instead, I left it behind.

A material object from my childhood was gone forever. I wondered if it was donated to a shelter or simply burned. Regardless, it provided a sense of home and coziness, in tenement crazed, New York City.

Since my relocation to California, I opted not to buy another Mickey Mouse blanket. Instead, I now count sheep in a gorgeous mint green comforter, which perfectly matches my old apartment door in Manhattan.

The Forgotten Cinema

Sandwiched between a fifties style café and gourmet bistro, stood the mighty cinema. Its tower had distinct turquoise bay windows. Its façade was pinker than a flamingo.

In fact, the whole shopping center was pink. It represented the highest in late 80’s architectural sophistication. Inside the Canyon Springs Cinema, great films of 1989 and early 90’s played.

Moviegoers stood in line for such classics as Wayne’s World, Addams Family Values, My Girl, Clueless, Too Wong Foo, The Lion King and (dare I say) Titanic. It was a gathering place for the community, which included many workers from the nearby, March Air Force Base, and students from UCR.

In the late 90’s, Riverside had a movie theatre boom. Theatres were easily found in two-mile radius. The Canyon Springs Cinema stood strong. Then pinker than a flamingo shopping center began it’s gradual decay.

Soon competition from nearby theatres finally hit Canyon Springs, like an incurable virus. The cinema and its mighty tower eventually faded away.

Once a beacon to mainstream cinema, where tears and laughter filled tacky red seats, neither emotion was ever felt again. Rather than being torn for a more modern structure, the cinema has remained abandoned. It’s interior, emptier than the Great Plains.

The shopping center did have a beacon of hope, curry. The neighborhood’s most delicious Indian restaurant livened up the bland scape. At least one can still have a spicy and delicious Chicken Tikka Masala, in the shadow of an abandoned shrine to film.

Alas in Wonderland

It was my first winter back in Southern California, after years in the New York City. The skies were grey. The hills resembled the robust green of the English countryside. Pea coats, coffee cups, and steaming hot soup replaced flip-flops, iced soy mochas and gazpacho.

The grey skies were welcoming, especially as the only weirdo, who missed New York winters. Orange groves provided the only pop of color. I made the best of my more quiet surroundings.

Like my teenage years, I’d drive the old Honda around Riverside. K-ROQ (local alternative music station) blasted. Cappuccinos fueled energy levels. As the ghettos of University Avenue became ornate Downtown, I felt strangely stimulated.

One condition crippled the brain waves. Writer’s block became a constant enemy. Everyday, I promised myself, “Hey, I’ll write a story. Instead, I looked at a most depressing blank page, and proclaimed, “fuck.”

Did the move out west kill my creativity? Many of my stories were New York-centric. They revolved around Harlem, the subway, East Village, bookshops, dive bars, and snarky Tri-State humor.

New York was in my past. However, I needed its anxiety filled lifestyle in order to function. Comfortably, I had settled into the suburbs. It was too comfortable. I needed to a certain level of misery to write.

It had been a month, since I had written anything. Depressed, I was constantly brainstorming story ideas. No luck, I just kept staring at a blank page. It was the white canvass of death.

The birds chirped. Coffee flowed through the veins. Stimulation was becoming drier than the Santa Ana winds. In the tradition of a well-read intellect, I made a bold move. I flipped on the TV and watched the “Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.”

A tear ran down my cheek. “Shit, this can’t be my existence.” As brain cells diminished, gradually, I feared for my sanity. Then I turned off the television. I walked over to my laptop and just started writing.

I didn’t need to be in a specific geographical location. My brain just needed to relax. With a more mellow brain, I completed a story. It was grand. My writer’s block had been cured (for the time being). Now, I could watch shit television, sans the guilty conscious.

Homesick

“Shit, I think I like stress. It’s my friend. I hate meditation and happy thoughts. I can only function when pressure rides high.” Cue the depressing 90’s alternative rock.

When I blew the candles on my thirty-three year old birthday cake, the pursuit of happiness stopped. Ironically, it made me a much more fulfilled person. Initially, it was fueled with my move back to California.

New York encompassed all things, which made me very grumpy. Crowds, bugs, perpetual noise, stairs (oh, god, so many stairs), a shrinking middle class, and superficiality morphed Gotham into my worst nightmare.

I’d sit out form my fire escape, bored with the constant sea of tenements. I longed to see mountains and hear chirping crickets. I decided to trade Manhattan for Riverside, CA (my hometown).

When my plane took off at LaGuardia Airport, traffic flowed below. People were going to work. Someone new would call my Harlem studio, home. Some lucky gal or fellow would take over my old job, with great benefits. My life now belonged to the rolling hills, coffee shops, and orange groves of the Inland Empire.

As I crossed the Hudson, the world was still held together. The flight across the nation reminded me of prosperity. Obama care, gay marriage, and a society slightly more united had its influence from rural prairies to Los Angeles.

Within the first six months in Southern California, the Orlando massacre shook the nation. Donald Trump was elected president. (On a more personal note) I had failed both my teaching exams, and returned to college, to obtain a second bachelor’s degree.

My New York neurosis didn’t depart, even in laid-back California. With the state of the world and professional setbacks, I became quite agitated. I longed to return to my very own “age of innocence” (thank you, Edith Wharton).

The last few years in New York had its turbulent moments. It was also a time of stability. Steady apartment, job, routine and familiarity provided a safety net. However, I needed a professional change. Teaching was more ideal.

In California, more challenges, reinventions, and unexpected failures appeared. It remained a risk. As I glared at the mountains from my bedroom, it made me miss Harlem.

The old tenements, jazz music roaring through Lenox Avenue, little bookshops, brownstones, and coffee shops they dazzled my life. Officially, I was homesick for New York City. (Thanks to circumstances, California remained home.)

Books, walks, and writing became a source of extreme distraction. It didn’t make happier, but certainly distracted me. During the last six months in California, I had read several books and written many stories. It served as therapy, since I couldn’t afford an actual shrink.

When I moved across the country, I thought, California would become a permanent home. Now, I realized grass is yellow and dry, everywhere. New York with it’s many downfalls, will probably become home again. I’ll accept it for every flaw, since perfection is the death of stimulation.

Homo-Neurotic Art

What am I sitting on? My mother yelled. She made a most campy discovery, while sitting on our old striped couch. This is a gay comic book isn’t it? Her fury was elevating within seconds.

Mother had this ideal vision of a clean-cut son, who acted masculine and aimed for business school. Instead, the Goddess above handed mom, an eccentric, quirky looking gay son, who loved theatre and books (in other shocking news). Finding the gay comic book tore into her conformists hopes for my mannerisms.

“Shit, fuck, shit, I should’ve been more careful with my gay goods.” She handed me the comic. It was tossed in the trash. When mom went upstairs to read her bible. I fished the comic out from the garbage. Its adorable new home became my Catholic high school locker.

2016, present day

Not surprisingly, I didn’t end up with a husband, finance job, or  test tube babies. My mother’s worst fear became an artful reality. In a friend’s artist loft in New York’s NoHo neighborhood, funky and serene art surrounded me.

Painted scenes from the French and Irish countryside, disco balls, paint splatters, squeaky old wooden loft, canvases filled with pastel colors; it was an arty outcast’s pinnacle moment. “Gee, I want some art..”

I was due to move back to my native California in a few weeks. Colorful art would go fittingly in the Gay-ve (gay man cave). “Here’s some art for your new home.” My artist friend handed me some divine prints. They featured naked men kissing.

Wow, original art by the original artist, and there were naked guys. I was harkened back to the sofa incident. Since I was in my thirties, there was no need to hide my gay art. Hours later, I attended a party on the Upper East Side and showed off the prints. Everyone was thoroughly impressed.

A week later, the art was shipped to dad’s house in Riverside, CA, along with cardigans, books, and records. As I walked back from the UPS store, alongside Harlem brownstones, I thought of my father’s face opening the suitcase filled with the gay erotic art.

Although, he could be more open minded than myself, I didn’t want him to have a heart attack. “Daddy my suitcase is on its way, don’t open it. There’s valuable art in there.” He could’ve sounded less interested.

Within weeks, I traded Manhattan for Riverside. Upon my arrival, the suitcase remained unopened. Unearthing the gay art, I laughed. “Where do I put this? My gayve is already much too distracting and this art is raunchy.”

“Uh-oh, was yours truly turning into a prude.” Rebelling like any good gay boy, I decided to bring a bit of edge to my track home. In a rare confessional moment, I told daddy, “The art in my suitcase is naked gay male art.” He shrugged his shoulders, “son, I would be more surprised if you didn’t have naked gay male art in your suitcase.”

We went back to watching Daria. In the same room, where mom found the gay comic and freaked, dad came to accept my outlandish artful tastes. This “freak of nature” officially felt acceptance.